Continually Sharpening

A theological blog by Janelle Zeeb

What Does it Mean to Be Made in God's Image?

For one assignment in a Christology course I took as part of my PhD, I wrote a review of Oliver D. Crisp's book The Word Enfleshed: Exploring the Person and Work of Christ (2016).

While this book is quite philosophical and not meant for beginners in theology, there were a few ideas in it I especially liked about what it means to say that humans are made in the image of God.

The image of God is one of the oldest theological ideas about humanity, going back to Genesis 1:27 which says God made humans in God's own image. This is repeated in Genesis 9:6. But the Bible is not very clear on exactly what being made in the image of God actually means.

What is the Image of God?

Crisp points out that there have been many different attempts by Christians to explain what being made in God's image means.

First, obviously, it cannot mean our physical bodies look like God.

While there are references in the Old Testament to God's "eyes" (Deut. 11:12) or "arm" (Ex. 6:6, Deut. 7:19), these are metaphors for God's knowledge (omniscience) or power (omnipotence).

For the Bible says God is spirit (John 4:24) and does not have a body until the Son becomes incarnate as the human Jesus. Although there are pre-incarnate appearances of the Son in the Old Testament (e.g. the "Angel of the Lord") and angels can take on human appearance to communicate with us (Gen. 19).1

Some have said the image of God involves having intelligence, free will, or a soul.

But Crisp points out that other creatures are also intelligent (e.g. dolphins) or have free will and souls (angels).

The problem is if we tie the image of God to any particular trait such as intelligence, rationality, creativity, compassion, etc., then since humans naturally vary in individual exhibition of these traits, it could justify bias against those who show lower levels of these traits than others - as if they are somehow less like God than others.

Another approach is to say that what makes us human is that we relate to God and each other.

But Crisp points out that again, this doesn't distinguish humans from angels. Plus, what about people who are in comas or who are effectively brain-dead? Are they no longer made in the image of God, because they are no longer able to have two-way relationships with anyone?

Finally, Crisp critiques the view of Robert Jenson, who says the image of God involves being able to love and pray.

Yet this suffers from the same problem as above - not all humans are able to love and pray (e.g. babies, people in comas, etc.) So that doesn't work either.2

Oliver Crisp on the Image of God

Instead, I really like Crisp's ideas about what it means to be made in the image of God.

He begins by saying that God had always intended for the Son to become incarnate as Christ. And thus, Crisp says "Human nature is created in order that it might reflect the divine image and be united to God."3

So God designed human nature so that it has all the properties necessary for the incarnation of Christ to be possible (i.e for the Son - the Second Person of the Trinity - to take on a human nature in addition to His divine nature, so that He was both fully human and fully divine simultaneously).

This has an advantage in that we are not limiting the image of God to any one trait or combination of traits, which suffers from the above problems.

(Although I might say that some level of intelligence, free will, language skills, emotions, creativity, and so on are necessary features of Jesus' human nature in particular, and thus, features of human nature in general, since Jesus cannot benefit anyone if he can't think, choose, feel, or talk to anyone!)

But then, how does this apply to all the rest of us? Here's what's cool about Crisp's idea.

Crisp says that we too are designed for union with God. For us, this occurs by being indwelled by the Third Person of the Trinity (the Holy Spirit).4

So being made in the image of God means that we can be united to God by being indwelled by the Holy Spirit (2 Tim. 1:14, 1 Thess. 4:8, Eph. 1:13, 1 Cor. 6:19-20).

So I really like this idea. I also think that Crisp's ideas here could be very helpful to build on in order to explain some differences between humans and angels.

In particular, I have two somewhat speculative ideas that I think can be supported by Crisp's claims.

First, humans can experience a closer relationship with God than angels can. Second, humans are able to be saved from their sins by the death of Jesus Christ, while angels cannot. I'll explain each of these in turn.

Humans Experience Closer Relationships with God?

One thing that has perplexed me is the question of why God chose to make humans at all. Why didn't God just stop after He made angels and enjoy their love and praise for all eternity?

I think Crisp's idea above is part of the answer: God has made humans so that God can actually unite Himself with humanity, either through the incarnation of the Son as Jesus Christ, or through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in believers.

Whereas the Bible never talks about angels being united with God or indwelled by the Holy Spirit.

In fact, I think it might actually be impossible for angels to be indwelled by the Holy Spirit. For, angels are spirits (e.g. Heb. 1:14); they don't have a real physical body as humans do.5

Angels are never mentioned in the Bible as being able to be possessed by evil spirits. Only humans and things with physical bodies (e.g. pigs - Matt 8:32) can be inhabited by evil spirits.

So I wonder if that same feature of being able to fit multiple "spirits" within one physical body (as in the case of demonic possession), is the same feature that enables humans to be indwelled by the Holy Spirit, and thus, be united with God's own divine nature in a special way that angels can never experience?

Peter notes that people can actually be partakers of God's own divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4) The Bible also compares the union of Christ and the Church to how two people become one flesh in human marriage (Eph. 5:31-32). This union with Christ happens through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in Christians, for the Holy Spirit is also called the Spirit of Christ (Romans 8:9). So Crisp suggests the Holy Spirit somehow "really and truly unites us to Christ so that we are, in some carefully circumscribed sense, one entity with him."6

Therefore, I think humans are designed in such a way that we can experience a much deeper intimacy with God than angels ever can, partly because we have physical bodies.

One benefit that may come from this special union with God is how the Bible hints that we will have some sort of authority over the angels in the afterlife (1 Cor. 6:3). Just as Jesus was temporarily lower than angels during his earthly life (Heb. 2:6-9), but then was raised above them (Heb. 1:4), so Jesus has promised that faithful believers will also share in his ruling authority (Rev. 3:21, Luke 19:17). This is an amazing privilege.

Only Humans are Redeemable?

Additionally, there is no hint in the Bible that the angels who sinned (now called demons, and their leader Satan - a.k.a the Devil, Beelzebub, Lucifer, etc.) can ever be saved.

Hebrews 2:16 says "Jesus clearly did not come to help angels, but he did come to help Abraham’s descendants" (CEV). This is not limiting salvation to Jews - it includes anyone who has faith in God's coming Messiah like Abraham did (Galatians 3:6-9).

Also, the Son had to become fully human in every way in order to redeem humans: "Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people" (Hebrews 2:17 NRSV).

Crisp has some interesting ideas about how it is possible for Jesus to redeem humans.

Crisp says humans are all part of one four-dimensional metaphysical entity (essentially, one being), presumably, because all humans are inter-related by our DNA due to our biological descent from Adam, and from Eve who herself came from Adam (Gen. 2:21).7

We can think of it like how an acorn is planted and grows into a tree. The tree of humanity grows through time, as well as in the three dimensions of the physical world, as the original DNA of Adam and Eve spreads out into many more individuals with different variations of recessive/dominant combinations of genes, but which all come from the same original source. So essentially, we are all just variations of Adam, and thus, part of the same four-dimensional metaphysical entity.

This is Crisp's way of explaining how the consequences of Adam and Eve's first sin are still properly transferred to later humans even though we did not personally sin the same way that Adam and Eve did (Romans 5:14).8

Because Jesus became human, he also became part of this same four-dimensional metaphysical entity. This means the consequences of all humanity's sins can be justly transferred to Jesus Christ, even though He was personally sinless.

Crisp feels this avoids the "forensic fiction" of God treating Christ only "as if" he had been guilty of all our sins. Plus, he thinks it makes sense of passages like Isa. 53:6, Rom. 5:12-19, and 2 Cor. 5:21, and so may offer a better philosophical basis for the penal substitution theory of atonement (the idea that Jesus is punished for our sins in our place, so that God can forgive us).9

Thus, Jesus has died for the sins of literally every human being - see 1 John 2:2 "Christ is the sacrifice that takes away our sins and the sins of all the world’s people." (CEV)

But this doesn't mean all will be saved - as I have discussed in my earlier post, I think the only people who will have eternal life are those who don't opt-out of this salvation by resisting the work of the Holy Spirit, who if not resisted, will bring someone to have faith in Christ as their savior.

So based on all this, I think angels are inherently un-redeemable, for there is no hint in Scripture that angels are all part of one four-dimensional metaphysical entity as humans are. They are simply spirits, created individually and instantly by God at some point in the past. Therefore, one angel's suffering could never atone for all other angels' sins. The only solution is for each separate angel to suffer the consequences of their own sins.

The Image of God: A Very Helpful Doctrine

So overall, the doctrine of humans being made in the image of God is actually very helpful theologically.

Not only does it give each of us a special dignity, worth, and importance which is not dependent on any particular attributes we have or anything we can do; it also explains how we have the opportunity to experience intimate union with God forever through the Holy Spirit, and to be redeemed by Jesus Christ through his becoming incarnate as a human and dying for our sins.

But of course, this union with God is not automatic. It happens only when we first have faith in Christ as our savior: Eph. 1:13-14. But it will last forever and ever, which is totally amazing.

Footnotes:

  • 1. And there is possibly some other strange sort of interaction going on between angels and humans in Gen. 6:4, also referenced in 1 Pet. 3:19-20 and 2 Pet. 2:4.
  • 2. Oliver D. Crisp, The Word Enfleshed: Exploring the Person and Work of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 55-59.
  • 3. ibid., 64.
  • 4. ibid., 165-166.
  • 5. Now, again, I have no idea what that means for how angels could appear as humans, or eat food (Gen. 18:8, Heb. 13:2), or produce Nephilim (Gen. 6:4).
  • 6. Crisp, The Word Enfleshed, 160.
  • 7. ibid., 131-135.
  • 8. ibid., 137.
  • 9. ibid., 129-130, 141.